It didn’t take long – comic book geek types (myself included) are a critical sort; quick to jump on inconsistencies, perceived casting mistakes (c.f. Ben Affleck as Batman), and to offer ‘fixes’ for ‘problems’, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been no exception. In fact, we were only three episodes in when the blogosphere started up: we expected more; the series is blah; the whole thing needs a reboot, and Paul Schembri’s recent article for The Conversation, five episodes into a 22 episode series (which by no way in anybody’s count is halfway Paul) is no exception. The thing is, much of the criticism is hyperbole (which we’ll get to) and all of it is missing the much bigger mark, and that’s the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the very ambitious and intricate project of cross-media world building that Marvel is undertaking.
So, let’s address the criticisms Schembri leveled at the show.
1. Joss Whedon has a patchy track record, except for Buffy and Angel, but (oddly) he should have hit the mark immediately with S.H.I.E.L.D. Yes, I concur, Whedon does have a patchy history (and I’m not just talking ‘feminism is a problem’ speeches – I’m disappointed Joss, really, really disappointed), but watch this great rant at Firefly fanatics and you’ll get an idea of the kind of fanbase he has (for the record, Dr Who , always,– Tom Baker in the anniversary episode – T.O.M. B.A.K.E.R.!!).
Second, I recently re-watched the first season of Buffy – guess what, it’s a little clunky (OK, quite a bit clunky) but it didn’t stop it becoming, well, Buffy. Should he have or, more fairly, could he possibly hit the mark immediately with S.H.I.E.L.D. – of course not, particularly given the long-term vision he typically brings to a show. Buffy of course was very famously planned seasons in advance – re-watch the show and it becomes obvious just how far in advance narrative and character arcs were plotted.
2. Ratings are falling. Well they were and they weren’t, and after the Thor cross-over, The Well, they went up. The truth is, while the ratings fell (not a great measure of a show’s actual popularity in this day and age of self-curated TV schedules), it was still doing well in its time slot overall, and it was leading the lot in the much vaunted and illusive 18-49 male audience. This show is not getting canned anytime soon folks. Whedon has time, and he knows it. Not to mention the fact that abc is owned by Disney, which happens to own Marvel Studios.
3. The argument from the presence of superviewers. Well by Schembri’s own admission these viewers are unlikely to have much of an impact on whether a show makes it past its original 10 episode pick up – and it’s a moot point since S.H.I.E.L.D. was the first new show of the season to be granted a full run. Secondly, there are superviewers who love the show. You’ll find their stuff over at shieldtv.net – the official fansite. And, in fact, the time when superviewers have an impact on the life of a show is generally in campaigns to save or bring back cancelled shows, which has been effective in the past.
This brings me to:
3. The recent deal with Netflix is an indication that Marvel is looking elsewhere because it knows S.H.I.E.L.D has problems. Ahh, no. Marvel has made this deal with Netflix because it is expanding its screen offerings. Further, the deal has been done for series that introduce popular comic fan, but lesser known in the outside world, Marvel characters (Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), and reboots Daredevil, whose character license recently reverted to Marvel after its dismal film outing (Affleck!). And, again, each of these characters will be tied together into their super-group The Defenders. As Marvel boss Alan Fine stated at the time, these series offer “fans the flexibility to immerse themselves how and when they want.“ Also, guess what, Netflix is owned by ABC/Disney – you know, Paul, the people who make S.H.I.E.L.D.
I’ll expand on that development in my next post.
And it’s this cross-media strategy – linking characters, shows and narratives across multiple screens and formats – that the criticism of S.H.I.E.L.D. has failed to recognize. If you place S.H.I.E.L.D. within the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe (or even the standard Marvelverse) you find that it, much like Stark Industries (if we’re going whole hog geek let’s remember it was Howard Stark behind S.H.I.E.L.D. at the outset), operates as a kind of Grand Central Station of narratives while at the same time maintaining its own internal consistency. What this means is that stories pass through it – S.H.I.E.L.D. is there to tie up loose ends; to provide the background for potential threats – basically to expand upon the before and after of the movies, while at the same time being able to build its own narrative map. If you need proof I direct you to Thor: The Dark World, where S.H.I.E.L.D. had a greater actual presence (its logo on scientific equipment) and threatened one (Natalie Portman’s character Jane Foster states they shouldn’t alert anyone to the gravo-metric anomaly in order to prevent S.H.I.E.L.D. from turning up and shutting down the site), and to the presence of Caterpillar project in this series, clearly an Extremis thing – Iron Man 3, people.
This is part of the genius of What Marvel are doing, and it’s best summed up by a friend, a DC girl through and through, who recently said that she feels a greater sense of investment when it comes to the Marvel films and S.H.I.E.L.D., precisely because she knows, if she doesn’t keep up with everything she may miss something vital to the next movie.
And that’s the true beauty of Marvel’s strategy.